A walk round the cemetery
What follows is a suggested route which will guide the visitor round some at least of the more notable graves (though in the democracy of the afterlife, all are notable!).
A few graves along the path from the entrance, on the right hand side, is the vault (1) of Kenneth Grahame (d.1932), the author of The Wind in the Willows, and his son Alastair, an undergraduate of Christ Church who died twelve years earlier in tragic circumstances, at the age of 20.
Before turning to the left, notice the grave (2) of the Miller family of Holywell. William Margetts Miller was the keeper of the cemetery for twenty years, until his death in 1916, when he was succeeded by his widow. She remained in the lodge as keeper till her retirement in 1931. Two of their sons and their wives were buried here with their parents. James joined the Great Western Railway at the age of 14 and ended a long career as stationmaster at Oxford.
Under a yew tree, at the end of the path to the left, is the grave (3) of Sir Hugh Cairns (1896-1952), an Australian Rhodes Scholar who became the most brilliant brain surgeon of his day and was first Nuffield Professor of Surgery from 1937 until his untimely death in 1952.
Round the corner, on the left, is a plot containing the graves of some of the Anglican sisters of Clewer who in 1857 established a ‘Female Penitentiary and House of Refuge’ at Holywell Manor, adjoining the cemetery. Beyond them is a plaque on the wall commemorating JWB: John William Burgon (1813-1888), Fellow of Oriel, Vicar of St Mary’s, and finally Dean of Chichester – at Oxford an indefatigable defender of lost causes, famous for his tract ‘To Educate Young Women like Young Men: A Thing Inexpedient and Immodest’. His tomb (4) is below.
On reaching the Fleming plaque on the wall, turn right, where you will find the grave (5) of Charles Williams (1886-1945), poet, Arthurian scholar and Inkling –friend of J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis.
As you turn left at the next corner you cannot miss the most beautiful funerary monument in the cemetery: the canopied tomb (6) of Henry Beaumont Bird, a Magdalen College chorister who died of typhoid fever in 1856, at the age of 12. It was probably his uncle, J.R.Bloxam, a Fellow of Magdalen and friend of Pugin, who commissioned the finest sculptor of the day, Thomas Earp of Lambeth, to carve the effigy and sepulchre in the medieval style. Henry is represented in the surplice of a chorister, his hands joined in prayer. At his feet is an eponymous bird, while the base below is decorated with lilies – the emblem of Magdalen College School.
A little way along the path is the sculpted cross marking the grave (7) of Hastings Rashdall, historian and theologian, Fellow of New College and later Dean of Carlisle.
This is another jewel in Holywell’s crown, a cross in the Celtic style, sculpted from Westmorland slate to mark Rashdall’s association with that county. The design is inspired by ancient Celtic crosses which survive in the north-west of England. Don’t miss the nose-diving angel.
Moving straight ahead you cannot miss the massive cross marking the grave (8) of one of the giants of Victorian Oxford, Sir Henry Acland (1815-1900), a Devonian, Regius Professor of Medicine, Oxford G.P., lifelong friend of John Ruskin, creator of the University Museum and the moving spirit in the creation of a school of Natural Science at Oxford. Buried in the same grave is his wife Sarah (d.1878), two of his daughters, and the eldest of their six sons, an Admiral.
Directly opposite is the grave (9) of the Russian emigré Sir Paul Vinogradoff (1854-1925), sometime Professor of History in the University of Moscow, ‘the most cosmopolitan scholar to come to Oxford since the Renaissance’. As Professor of Jurisprudence here he brought a wider European perspective to English historical studies.
On the boundary wall, to the right, there are several memorials (10) to the Poulton family: Sir Edward Poulton (1866-1943), Professor of Zoology, and his wife Emily, the daughter of George Palmer, M.P. for Reading and co-founder of the firm of Huntley and Palmer, the biscuit manufacturers. Alongside is the simple wooden cross which originally marked the grave in Flanders of their second son Ronald Palmer, killed in battle in 1915. Ronald was one of the earliest Oxford graduates in engineering and the outstanding rugby player of his time, a celebrated sporting hero who established boys’ clubs in Oxford and Reading.
Follow the wall until the next turning to the right, where on the corner you will find the unusual terracotta memorial (11) of Sir John Rhys (1840-1915), Professor of Celtic, and his wife. Behind that is the massive granite Celtic cross which marks the grave (12) of Sir Frederick Max Muller (1823-1900), German-born Sanskrit scholar, world authority in the field of ancient Indian literature, pioneer of the science of comparative philology and religion, friend of kings and emperors. Nearby is another Celtic cross of granite, the finest among many in the cemetery, marking the grave of Bartholomew Price, mathematician and Master of Pembroke College.
Continuing along the main path, take the first turning to the right where you will find the grave (13, fourth on the left) of Walter Pater (d.1894), the author of Marius the Epicurean, and inspirer of the aesthetic movement. On the other side of the main path you may find, the memorial (14) to George Claridge Druce (1850-1932), proprietor of a chemist’s shop in the High Street, Mayor of Oxford, botanist, and author of the Flora of Oxfordshire. At the second turning to the left, on returning to the main path, you may glimpse the tall Celtic cross above the grave (15) of Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), Professor of Music at the University of Oxford and composer of the Crucifixion, that most famous of Victorian oratorios, as well as of 40 anthems and some 150 hymn tunes. There is a window to his memory in St Cross church.
As you approach the area beneath the branches of a rare golden oak, take a few steps down the avenue to the right and you will find (on the left) a tablet (16) commemorating William Frederick Donkin (1845-1888), mountaineer, Alpine photographer, and scientist. Behind it is the grave of his wife and infant daughter, who died in 1877. He is not buried here, but in the Caucasus, where he and three companions were swept away by an avalanche while attempting the ascent of Mount Dychtau, the second highest mountain in the Caucasus. His last moments in biting wind and driving snow are vividly evoked in the verses on his memorial tablet.
On the other side of the space under the golden oak (a non-native species) is another little jewel of funerary art: the grave (17) of Lewis Theodore Pilcher, aged 4 years and two months, only child of Theodore and Sophie Pilcher, and his devoted nurse Elizabeth Sibley, both drowned at Medley Weir in May 1893. The marble casket tomb is adorned with exquisite copperwork. In 1993 vandals removed the panels at either end, each representing a peacock.
The area beneath the golden oak contains more recent cremation burials. Among those commemorated here are the archaeologist Christopher Hawkes (18); the poet Anne Ridler and her husband Vivian, typographer and printer to the university (19); Marjorie Reeves, historian and churchwoman (20); John Barber, dramatic critic (21); Hugo Dyson, tutor in English literature and associate of the Inklings (22); T.J.Binyon, biographer of Pushkin (23); Kenneth Tynan, enfant terrible (24), and later one of the founders of the National Theatre; Austin Farrer, theologian (25), and Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College, perhaps the most formidable and influential Oxford personality in the period between the two wars (26).